July 29, 2027
Mary lay still on the roof, stared into the night sky, and watched the ghost images from Palisade's energy web as they danced against the black backdrop of space. The gritty shingles scratched through her clothes, pulled at her hair, made her itch, but she embraced the discomfort and tried to remember the last time she'd been comfortable. Been more than just content to exist.
Not since the wave had been discovered. A raging wave of cosmic dust and debris that promised total annihilation of everything in its path.
Reporters, television evangelists, and scientists, they all delivered the same message: Heaven is falling. And, depending on the messenger, it was going to be in a fiery light show, with and/or without the brimstone, or the wave was going to be so thick, so dense, it would completely block the sun, and the world would end in total darkness.
The world had almost ended when the wave was first discovered. People rioted, burned, looted, and killed indiscriminately until martial law broke up their end-of-the-world party. Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and the surrounding areas were still a protected militarized zone. Marines guarded the laboratories in Oak Ridge that housed Palisade, a pseudo army guarded the wall, and Hadrian's security forces served as law enforcement for the cities.
She stood and again peered through her garage sale telescope. The one her dad had bought for her seventh grade science project, with its fraying duct tape and scratched lens.
Memories of her parents surfaced and smothered her in clouds of pain like the oily, black smoke of the lab explosion that had killed them a little over five years ago. So real it choked her until she couldn't breathe. Not rioters. Not the wave. They died in a stupid lab accident while working on some super secret technology for Palisade. For Hadrian.
Unshed tears burned her eyes, made it difficult to focus. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and peered through the lens past the energy web and on to the vast regions of space. Well, maybe not so far, but enough to know the wave wasn't going to hit in the next twenty-four hours. Soon though, if the predictions held. A couple of weeks, possibly sooner.
How long had it been? She left her perch on the roof and counted the rungs as years as she climbed down the ladder. Seven, eight, nine years since one of Palisade's long range probes discovered the wave? And how long after the discovery did it take Palisade, and its proud owner, Hadrian, to announce the arrival of their new Sentinel web technology? Did it matter?
Not really. Nothing much did anymore. She'd be a little more skeptical if other space agencies hadn't confirmed the sighting, but they had, and she'd watched her world change. Sometimes in violent flashes, and other times like the muddy flow of the Tennessee River.
She jumped the last few feet off the ladder and cut through the yard to the street. A cold, sharp wind sliced across the city, seemed to follow her, teasing up the hem of her jacket as she walked. A side effect of the web. Unprepared for the rapid change in Knoxville's usual hot and humid July weather, Mary shivered inside her thin jacket. The beat up nylon material didn't do much to ward off the chill. She should've worn one of the hoodies, but walking alone into the city with a mech gang symbol on her back, along with the dragon skin tat covering her left eye and cheek, screamed trouble.
Without the hoodie, she risked being hassled, but it didn't happen much anymore. Occasionally, though, some idiot, usually a newbie in one of the other gangs, who didn't know she was Jonah's sister tried to rob her, or to corner her in an alley, and she kept a constant lookout for unwanted company. The last guy who'd made such a mistake had the biomechanical devices ripped out of his arms. The gangs instituted their own brand of justice—swift, bloody, ugly, and nobody intervened. Even the city security forces looked the other way when the mech system of law leaked out of the shadows.
No streetlights burned in this sector of town, but she'd traveled the area enough to know the safest route. At the corner she turned left and navigated through the darkened paths. Before the discovery of the wave, and the riots, the neighborhood had been safe, quiet. Now, it stood slowly decaying into the fringes. Sticky weeds flourished, oozing a yellow fungus through the remains of crumbling sidewalks. The soles of her sneakers made a sucking sound with every step, and she tried not to imagine what other microscopic creatures grew in the muck. Some of the businesses on Broadway made an effort to control the infestation, but nothing short of napalm could kill it now.
Still, she preferred the night. The blanketing comfort. The never changing inkiness of it. The way her headaches subsided and changed from a raging monster determined to destroy her brain to a dull ache. Energy streams from Palisade's web skewed the natural order of the world. The clear, cerulean blue sky of her childhood had slowly morphed into a deep violet hosting magenta tinged clouds. And the light, or the type of energy, or a combination of the two affected some people, like her, and made their brains short circuit. After today's power boost, darker shades would dominate the day's atmosphere, and pain would darken her mind. But the night remained the same. Almost. If flecks of light from the energy web penetrated the darkness, it was easy to imagine them as stars.
Almost grudgingly she cleared the shadows, and it took a second for her eyes to adjust to the bright area around the checkpoint. Like some other sectors, downtown Knoxville with its banks and government buildings was sealed off from the surrounding area by a wall. Per protocol, she stepped to the pedestrian entrance and placed her right palm on the scanner. The RFID chip embedded under the skin wasn't hers. Not originally. The Dragons had 'salvaged' it from some poor girl who half-blasted a few months ago and ended up in a church. The fake info, coupled with the tat, made Mary a little nervous every time she used the ident system to get into the city.
The scanner green-lighted. She turned her face away from the guards, even though they paid little attention to the fringers, and stepped into the Plexi-arch. A contained version of Palisade’s energy web covered both openings and trapped her inside while the body scan checked for weapons and contraband. The strings of energy buzzed in the night air. Made her skin tingle.
Or maybe it was the scan. The strands of light criss-crossing her midsection moved slower than normal, lingered, intensified. The guards pulled out their shock sticks and moved to stand on each side of the opening. What the hell?
The sweep finally finished with no alarms, and she took a deep breath of the cool air that rushed in as the web sizzled away. Without so much as a glance at the guards, she continued through to the city.
She stopped in front of a sports bar, a relic with vid screens mounted on the walls for those who still cared about sports. Correction, sport. Football. And all those rules designed to protect the players? Helmet to helmet contact? Low hits? Chop blocks? Horse collars? Yeah, they didn't apply anymore. During martial law, the game mirrored the brutality of the society it entertained, and the spectators cheered the violence. Demanded more. Steroids kept the players on the field. Well, 'roids, women, and big piles of money.
In contrast to the brutality, a small screen in a back corner showed Brother Samuel's nightly devotion. Mandatory in public buildings, synced through the radio stations and the civil defense speakers on Sundays. His sermons ran more to a fiery death from sin than forgiveness. Religion wasn't her thing, but people looked up to the sky, one eye on the wave, the other on God, and repented. Started a revival, and prompted the president to appoint Brother Samuel as the country's spiritual leader Christmas day a year ago. Pissed off the Vatican. Elated the protestants. Added to the violence.
She watched one large screen through the front window. A news segment from around the world. Riots, looting, and destruction had started up again in the major world cities. Seemed to happen about every three months or so. She tried to find some measure of sympathy for those people, but surprisingly found herself wishing she were in New York, or Chicago, or London. Living under the strictures of Hadrian's security forces wasn't any safer. Just a slower death. The scene cut away from the devastation and went to a shot of the Atlantic Ocean with dire warnings for people to stay away from the coasts. The energy web played havoc with the tides and ravaged beaches.
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